Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Seth Rogen in The 40-Year-Old VirginTHE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN

Considering the film's title, this might sound ludicrous. But in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell, playing our hapless hero Andrew, gives what might become a legendary comedic screen performance.

Like Dudley Moore's Arthur or Tom Hanks' Josh in Big, Andrew has been fashioned with just enough dimension to allow Carell, as both comic and actor, to explode; Carell is often hysterical here, yet never steps outside the character for a laugh that isn't built into the role (as Jim Carrey, even at his best, is still wont to do). He's real, and intensely likable, yet so comedically charged that everything Carell says and does has an element of surprise, and the confidence that he reveals in this, his first Hollywood lead role, is staggering. It's a sly, surprisingly tender, and hysterically funny performance, which perfectly befits this sly, surprisingly tender, hysterically funny movie.

Carell and Judd Apatow, who co-wrote the script with Carell and serves as The 40-Year-Old Virgin's director, have done something rather remarkable here: They've created a completely original comedic hero. As written and performed, Andrew isn't a freak, he isn't a slacker, he isn't gay, he isn't a mama's boy - he's just a dear, meek, insecure man who has opted for a life based on the familiar pleasures of his youth. (Video games and action figures - still in their original boxes - decorate his home.) Andrew works a dull job in an electronics superstore and goes home to Survivor and egg-salad sandwiches, but he's not unhappy - quite the opposite, in fact. He's so content with his life of petrifying routine that he's forgotten another world exists.

The movie follows Andrew as he learns to dump old habits and take a chance on love, and as such, it might connect with its (primarily male) audience in a way that very few slob comedies are able to do. It's ostensibly about getting Andrew laid, but it's really about getting him to grow up, and scene for scene, the movie is far more clever than it needed to be. Who would have thought a movie called The 40-Year-Old Virgin would be this insightful? As Andrew goes through a series of humiliating, sometimes excruciating dating scenarios, the audience experiences an empathy that feels, for the film's genre, revelatory, yet it's never at the expense of the movie's laughs.

And what a variety of laughs! Virgin features more than enough dementedly crude sequences to satisfy everybody's inner frat boy, but here, even the comedic money shots are given an extra fillip through a bit of throwaway dialogue or a terrific punchline. Apatow and Carell understand that it's not the gross-out itself that's funny, but rather the characters' reactions to the gross-outs, and Carell responds to his outré scenarios with a downtrodden "I should have seen that coming" exasperation; your heart would bleed for him if he wasn't making you laugh so freakin' hard. (His pitch-perfect, deadpan response makes even the scene of Andrew getting puked on pretty damned funny.) The movie's comic shocks are big, satisfying ones, but its sweetness continually catches you off guard.

Carell could easily have been the whole show, but if we've learned anything from Judd Apatow's television output over the years (he's one of the brains behind The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks & Geeks, and Undeclared), it's that he loves actors; in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, everyone winds up looking good. Catherine Keener, with her sexy, dirty laugh, partners Carell extraordinarily well, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Seth Rogen are achingly hilarious, and Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann, and the great Jane Lynch - in severe make-up that makes her look like a horny vampire - score their laughs with stunning aplomb. You'd have to search long and hard for a movie with this many inspired second bananas.

The joys you can get from a gloriously rude slapstick comedy are enormous, and in the past few years we've been treated to some absolutely first-rate ones: Old School, Bad Santa, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, and those madly inspired Trey Parker/Matt Stone entries, South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut and Team America: World Police. (And although I wasn't a fan, Wedding Crashers, for many, would find placement on that list, as well.) The 40-Year-Old Virgin features belly laughs equal to any found in those flicks, but it has a geniality and lightness of spirit that's all its own, and it has Steve Carell. It's taken a while - it's taken a long while - but the most entertaining Hollywood movie of the summer has finally arrived.


A League of Ordinary GentlemenA LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN

This year, area audiences are finding themselves in the midst of a full-scale documentary renaissance. Is anybody noticing? In just the past few months, we've been treated to March of the Penguins, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mad Hot Ballroom, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill - why aren't more people lining up for these films? Granted, Penguins just snuck past Bowling for Columbine to become the second-highest-grossing doc of all time, but whenever I tell people about how much I enjoyed one of these works, their reactions are generally variations on the same theme: "I'm sure it's great, but I just don't like documentaries ... ."

What these people are missing is the great, unspoken thrill of the genre: Documentaries are one of the last vestiges of surprise left in movies. Since, in a doc, there's no conventional script to speak of - the cameras are turned on and events unfurl as they will, without the "benefit" of focus-group consideration - they have a momentum and excitement that most Hollywood entertainments rarely achieve; guessing their outcomes is like guessing how one's own life will unspool.

The latest entry in our roster of superb 2005 docs is Christopher Browne's A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (now at the Brew & View), which details the attempts of the WBA to return the sport of bowling - for years, the most-watched sporting event on American television - to its place of national prominence; Browne follows four of America's best - Walter Ray Williams, Pete Weber, Wayne Webb, and Chris Barnes - as they approach the national championships and deal with the knowledge that not only do their skills not get the respect they may merit, but that they're even something of a joke. The movie has a lot to say about American culture and the disposability of our celebrities, and it's beautifully put together, but the reason audiences should seek A League of Ordinary Gentlemen out is because, like those other 2005 docs, it's just so much fun. (You may find yourself a bit embarrassed by how caught up you get in the climactic bowling championship.) One of the most common complaints I hear about modern movies is "I knew how it was going to end within the first ten minutes." Why are audiences so insistent on avoiding movies where the ending is still uncertain in the last two minutes?

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